Sympathy for the Sauds

I’ve always been confused by the US alliance with Saudi Arabia. Its a state with values abhorrent to many Americans, and it seems like we don’t get much practical value out of the alliance.

This essay on Saudi history, politics, and economics by Matt Lakeman makes the situation more comprehensible. I still don’t know that I want the alliance, but I can now see how so many US presidents have continued with it without necessarily being stupid, crazy, or corrupt. In short, they think that most of the realistic alternatives are worse. Some highlights:

Before starting this research, I had the same perception as Wood that the Saudi economy is essentially what he calls a “petrol-rentier state.” Basically, Saudi Arabia sits on top of a giant ocean of easily-accessed oil which they suck out of the ground and sell at enormous profit to prop up the rest of their extremely inefficient economy and buy the loyalty of their own people and foreign powers. Saudi Arabia is the wealthiest large state in the Middle East today by sheer virtue of geographic luck rather than any innovation or business acumen on the part of its people.

And after doing my research, all of the above is… basically true.

But all of that should also be true of Iran, Iraq, Venezuela, Libya, and a few other countries which are also situated on giant oceans of oil but are far poorer than Saudi Arabia.

Economically, Saudi Arabia deserves little credit for its success. Politically, Saudi Arabia deserves a tremendous amount of credit for enabling its economic success. 

Dealing with the resource curse is always challenging, and foreign ownership is an additional challenge. How did they manage it?

the Sauds struck a clever balance between being too aggressive and too placating of the foreigners operating their oil wells. If the Saudi state had been aggressive and tried to nationalize its oil quickly, Saudi Arabia could have ended up becoming another Venezuela or Iran with lots of external political pressure from hostile Western countries and a low-efficiency oil industry. But if they had nationalized too late, they would have ended up like a lot of African nations who have all their natural wealth siphoned away by foreigners.

Instead, the Sauds executed a patient, and most importantly, amicable assertion of power over Aramco, which did not become fully owned by Saudis until 1974. At the very start of Aramco, the company was entirely owned and operated by Americans aside from menial labor. However, the Saudi government inserted a clause into their contract with the corporation requiring the American oil men to train Saudi citizens for management and engineering jobs. The Americans held up their end of the bargain, and over time, more and more Saudis took over management and technical positions.

In addition to carefully negotiating the balance of power with various foreigners, the Sauds have done so with the religious establishment:

Though the monarch has absolute power, his authority is at least in part derived from Saudi Arabia’s Islamic religious establishment. The ulema (a group of the highest-ranking clerics) is officially integrated into the government, and plays an important role in legal matters. However, the religious establishment has slowly been marginalized by the monarchy over the last few decades, and has possibly been subjugated entirely since the reform era began five years ago.

Winning freedom of action has been a long road with many setbacks:

[King] Abdulaziz constantly had to reassure enraged Wahhabi clerics that he wasn’t selling out the Arab homeland to treacherous infidels. IIRC, it was some time in the 1920s that Abdulaziz had to publicly smash a telegraph to prove to the clerics that he wasn’t bewitched by infidel technology.

In late 1979, 400-500 extremist Sunni Saudis seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca (the holiest Islamic site on earth) and demanded the overthrow of the Saud dynasty in favor of a theocratic state meant to await an imminent apocalypse. They held on for two weeks while managing to fight off waves of Saudi police and military squads. Eventually, three French commandos flew to Mecca, converted to Islam in a hotel room, and led a successful assault to retake the Mosque. Over 100 men died on each side, with hundreds more wounded.

The Grand Mosque seizure was the final wake-up call for the Saud dynasty. Something drastic had to be done or their regime would likely be ground down under mounting internal and external pressure…. King Khalid led a social/religious/political reactionary revolution within Saudi Arabia to align with the Sunni extremists. Up until about four years ago, Saudi society was still gender segregated and enforced a largely literalist interpretation of Sharia, hence the array of bizarre and antiquated laws – gender segregation in public, requiring women to cover their faces, outlawing of non-Muslim religious buildings (there are a few Shia mosques), restrictions on foreign media, etc. Saudi Arabia was always conservative, but most of these draconian laws were only put into place in the 1980s. The Saud dynasty purposefully induced a reactionary legal regime and pulled Saudi Arabia further away from liberalism.

The charitable take on making an already oppressive regime even more oppressive is that the Sauds were trying to bend Saudi Arabia to the extremists so the country would not break. And by all accounts, it worked; the conservative Wahhabi clerics backed by the Saud dynasty placated a sizeable portion of the Sunni extremists inside and outside of Saudi Arabia, and they became a pool of support against the Shia and Baathists. Saudi Arabia was certainly made a worse country for its citizens, but that was the price to pay for averting civil war.

More recently, Crown Prince Salman has consolidated power to the point where he can make modernizing reforms that Wahhabis might have opposed, like allowing women to drive, allowing non-Muslim foreigners to to get tourist visas, allowing music concerts, et c. Lakeman obviously likes these reforms, but at the same time worries that the concentrated power that so far Salman has largely used to enact positive reforms could be abused going forward, and on a larger scale than murdering the occasional dissident.

Wood argues that a worst case scenario parallel to MBS is Syrian Dictator Bashar al-Assad. Like MBS, there were high hopes that Assad would be a liberal reformer when he took over Syria. After all, Assad had been living and working in the UK as an ophthalmologist with no political aspirations, and was known to be a fan of Phil Collins. He was called to the throne after the unexpected death of his older brother, and so the West hoped that this nerdy British doctor would bring upper-middle class liberal values to Syria. Instead, Assad became one of the worst dictators of the modern Middle East, probably second only to Saddam Hussein.

I recommend reading the whole thing, here I’m quoting relatively small parts of an article full of interesting detail on the history, economics, and politics of Saudi Arabia. There’s also a section on visiting:

The silver lining to Saudi Arabia’s lack of tourism is that there aren’t many tourist restrictions. I went to two ancient settlements and I found no guards, no gates, no notices at all. I walked in, around, and on top of 2,000 year old houses, and I honestly have no idea if I was allowed to.

Fight for $15? $25? $40?

Remember the “Fight for $15”? It’s a 10-year-old movement to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour. While there hasn’t been any increase in the federal minimum wage since the movement began in 2012, plenty of states and localities have done so.

I won’t rehash the entire debate on the minimum wage here, but I will point you to this post from Joy on large minimum wage changes, and here are several other posts on this blog on the same topic. But lately I have seen an increasing call for even larger minimum wage increases, well beyond $15.

A prominent recent call for a higher wage comes from the SEIU, the second largest labor union in the nation. They are calling for a $25 minimum wage in Chicago, where the legal minimum wage just recently crossed $15 last year. Again, without getting into the detailed debates about the economics of the minimum wage, we can recognize that this would be a massively high minimum wage, given that median hourly wage for the Chicago MSA was $22.74 in May 2021. It’s certainly a bit higher in 2022, and the city of Chicago is probably a bit higher than the entire MSA. Still, we are talking about a minimum wage that would cover roughly half the workforce. Well, at least half the current workforce. The negative employment effects would potentially be large.

Here I will dabble a little bit in the minimum wage literature. One of the most famous recent papers that suggests increasing the minimum wage doesn’t have large negative employment effects is a 2019 paper by Cengiz, et al. This paper only looks at legal minimum wages that go up to 59% of the median market wage, which is the highest wages have been pushed up so far. By contrast, that $25 minimum wage in Chicago would be somewhere around 100% (!) of the local median market wage. That’s huge, and goes far beyond what even the most sympathetic-to-the-minimum-wage research has looked at.

But here’s the most recent minimum wage call that really takes the cake: over $40 per hour in Hawaii. That comes from, in a way, a Tweet from Hal Singer:

Now in fairness, he doesn’t exactly call for a $40 minimum wage in Hawaii, but he does say we should use the minimum wage as a tool to address homelessness, and then points to a study showing that you would need to earn $40/hour in Hawaii to afford a two-bedroom apartment. That’s pretty close. The median wage in Hawaii? About $23 in May 2021. In fact, the 75th percentile wage in Hawaii was $36.50 in 2021! So, depending on exactly how much wage growth there has been in Hawaii since May 2021, we are likely talking about a $40 minimum wage covering 75% of the workforce! That would likely have some “bite,” as economists say.

Protests Erupt Across China Over COVID Policy But Lockdowns Continue: Why?

Headlines in today’s financial news include items like “Clashes in Shanghai as COVID protests flare across China“ from Yahoo Finance. There have been widespread protests this week, which are normally a rarity under the authoritarian regime, and are being suppressed by any means necessary. Apple stock is down about 4% in the past two trading days on fears that iPhone shortages will get worse due to worker unrest in the giant Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou. Wall Street keeps hoping the China will loosen up, since the lockdowns on the world’s second-largest economy are a drag on global markets.

China has pursued a “zero-COVID” policy, of strict mass lockdowns to halt any spread of the virus. Residents have been confined to their apartments for over 3 months in some cases. Whole cities with tens of millions of people have been locked down for months at a time whenever a number of cases are spotted. China’s economic growth has stagnated, and unemployment among young people has risen to 20%, which has helped fuel unrest.  Chinese people are aware that the rest of the world has moved on from mass lockdowns, and may be realizing the futility of thinking that lockdowns can stave off the virus indefinitely.

Given its discomfort with widespread discontent and protests, why does the Chinese government persist in this policy? An article in the Atlantic by Michael Shuman answers that question: “Zero COVID Has Outlived Its Usefulness. Here’s Why China Is Still Enforcing It. “  Back in 2020 when COVID first swept through the world, the strict lockdowns (readily enforced in an authoritarian regime) seemed like a big win for the Chinese leadership:

When the outbreak began in Wuhan in early 2020, the virus was unknown, vaccines were unavailable, and China’s poorly equipped health system could have quickly become overwhelmed by a sweeping pandemic. Yet the policy had a political element from the very beginning as well. The Communist Party is adept at sniffing out threats to its rule, and it quickly identified COVID as one of them. A major public-health crisis, with millions dying, would have raised serious doubts about the regime’s competence, which is, in effect, its sole claim to legitimacy.

Worse, the party could have faced a populace that directly blamed it for the outbreak—with good reason. The Chinese authorities at both the national and local levels botched their initial response to the novel coronavirus, suppressing information about its discovery by a Wuhan doctor and acting far too slowly to contain the initial spread. Sensing its potential vulnerability, the party shifted into anti-COVID overdrive, shutting down large swaths of the country, with the result that it did succeed in snuffing out an epidemic in a matter of weeks, even as it spread to the rest of the world.

That success allowed the Communist Party to transform a potential tragedy into a public-relations triumph. Within weeks of the Wuhan outbreak, China’s propaganda machine was touting the wonders of its virus-busting methods. And as the U.S. and other Western countries struggled to contain the disease, Beijing’s big win became even more valuable as evidence that its authoritarian system was more capable and caring than any democratic one. Beijing and its advocates pointed to rising case and death counts in the U.S. as proof of China’s superiority and American decline.

A number of other countries including Australia and New Zealand also implemented strict (stricter than in the U.S.) lockdown measures in 2020, and, like China, experienced far less impact from the virus in that timeframe than seen in the U.S. However, most of these measures were lifted in 2021. The widespread application of mRNA vaccines like those from Pfizer and Moderna in the West has served to mitigate the severity of the viral infection. Also, some measure of herd immunity has been achieved by the widespread exposure to COVID in the population; antibodies persist for at least eight months after contracting the disease. So, what’s up with China?

China has resisted using Western vaccines, relying instead on homegrown vaccines which are less effective, though they do give some measure of protection.  Also, “The additional layers of high-tech surveillance adopted in the name of pandemic prevention can be used to enhance the tracking and monitoring of the populace more generally,” which is another win for the government. However, the major factor is that the Party, and especially President Xi, cannot afford to loosen up now and risk an embarrassing explosion of cases that would overburden the healthcare system and probably lead to millions of deaths:

The victory of zero COVID was claimed not just as the party’s but as Xi Jinping’s in particular. The State Council, China’s highest governing body, declared in a 2020 white paper that Xi had “taken personal command, planned the response, overseen the general situation and acted decisively, pointing the way forward in the fight against the epidemic.”

This narrative became entrenched. If Beijing loosened up and allowed COVID to run amok, the Chinese system would appear no better than those of loser democracies, and Xi would seem like another failing politician, a mere mortal, not the virus-fighting superhero he was painted as. Zero COVID’s failure would be a disaster for the Communist Party’s veneer of infallibility.

So the leadership insists on zero COVID and damn the consequences.

Two Types of News: Elections vs Crashes

Some events are like elections: it was obvious that some big political news would break on Election Day, we just had to wait to find out what exactly would happen. Others are like market crashes: you might know in principle they’re a thing that can happen, but you don’t really expect any particular day to be the day one happens, so they seem to come out of the blue. As it turns out, for one of the largest crypto exchanges the day of the crash also happened to be Election Day.

FTX.com is facing a bank run sparked by competitor Binance tanking the price of the token that backed some of their assets. Customers are having issues withdrawing their money, Binance has withdrawn its offer to bail out FTX by taking them over, and bankruptcy seems likely. Supposedly this doesn’t affect Americans using FTX US, but I’d be nervous about any funds I had there, or indeed with funds in any centralized crypto exchange or stablecoin (Tether and even USDC seem to be having issues holding their pegs). All this was especially shocking because many considered FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried one of the most trustworthy people in the often sketchy world of crypto. He was always meeting with US regulators and lawmakers, and seems not to be motivated by greed; he had already begun to give away his fortune at scale.

After any surprising event like this, some people claim it was actually obvious and they saw it coming (despite usually never having said so beforehand), while others start looking back for warning signs they missed. The most interesting one is something that shocked me when I first heard it March, but I never considered the risk it implied for FTX until the crash:

Going forward, red flags to watch out for seem to be topping a list of youngest billionaires (as Elizabeth Holmes also did) and buying naming rights to a stadium.

In contrast to this crash, the election happened right when we all expected, and at least largely how I expected. Like markets, I underestimated Democrats a bit; polls overall were impressively accurate this year, though they of course missed on some particular races. Votes are still being counted, and as of now we don’t even know for sure which party will control Congress (PredictIt currently gives Democrats a 90% chance in the Senate and a 20% chance in the House). But here are some early attempts to assess forecast accuracy. As I said, some polls were quite good:

Some polls weren’t so good, which means its important to weight better pollsters more heavily when you aggregate them. Some attempts at that were also quite good:

Oddly, some no money (Metaculus) / play money (Manifold Markets) forecasting sites seem to have done better than the real-money prediction sites:

A Dragonfly’s View of Election Day 2022

This is my last post before the US midterm elections on Tuesday, so I’ll leave you with a prediction for what’s coming.

Who is the best predictor of elections? Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight has had a pretty good run since 2008 using weighted polls. Ray Fair, an economics professor at Yale has a venerable and well-credentialed model based on fundamentals. I typically favor prediction markets, because they incorporate a wide range of views weighted by how willing people are to put their money where their mouth is, and traders are able to incorporate other sources of information (including predictors like FiveThirtyEight). But which prediction market should we trust? There are now many large prediction markets, and the odds often differ substantially between them.

When there are many reasonable ways of answering a question or looking at a problem, it can be hard to choose which is best. Often the best answer is not to choose- instead, take all the reasonable answers and average them. Dan Gardner and Philip Tetlock call this approach Dragonfly Eye forecasting, since dragonfly’s eyes see through many lenses. So what does the dragonfly see here?

Lets start with the US House, since everyone covers it.

  • FiveThirtyEight’s latest forecast shows that Republicans have an 85% chance of taking the House; it shows a range of possible outcomes, but on average predicts that Republicans win the popular vote by 4.3% and take 231 House seats (substantially over the 218 needed for a majority)
  • The Fair Model predicts that Democrats will win 46.6% of the two-party vote share (leaving Republicans with 53.4%). This has Republicans winning the popular vote by 6.8%, a moderately bigger margin than FiveThirtyEight. The reasoning is interesting; the economy is roughly neutral since “the negative inflation effect almost exactly offsets the positive output effect”, so this is mainly from the typical negative effect of having an incumbent party in the White House.
  • Prediction markets: PredictIt currently gives Republicans a 90% chance to take the House. Polymarket gives them 87%. Insight Prediction also gives them 87%. Kalshi doesn’t have a standard market on this, but their contest (free to enter, 100k prize) predicts 232 Republican seats.

Its a bit tricky to average all these since they don’t all report on the same outcome in the same way. But the overall picture is clear: Republicans are likely to do well in the House, with an ~87% chance to win a majority, expected to win the popular vote by ~5.55% and take ~232 seats.

The Senate is closer to a coin flip and harder to evaluate.

  • FiveThirtyEight gives Republicans a 53% chance to win a majority (51+ seats for them; Democrats effectively win if the Senate stays 50-50 since a Democratic Vice President breaks ties for at least 2 more years). The most likely seat counts are 50-50 or 51-49, but confidence intervals are pretty wide and 54-46 either direction isn’t ruled out.
  • The Fair Model doesn’t make Senate predictions, only House and Presidential predictions.
  • Prediction markets: PredictIt gives Republicans a 70% chance to win a Senate majority, probably with 52-54 seats. PolyMarket gives Republicans a 65% chance, as does Insight Prediction. Kalshi predicts 53 Republican seats.

Overall we see a much higher variance of predictions in the Senate; a 17pp gap between the highest (70%) and lowest (53%) estimates of Republican chances, vs just a 5pp gap for the House (90% to 85%). This shows up with the seat counts too; everyone agrees there’s a substantial chance Republicans lose the Senate, but if they do win, it will probably be by more than one seat. The average estimate is ~52 Republican seats. FiveThirtyEight and PredictIt agree that the closest Senate races will be Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nevada, and New Hampshire (though they rank order them differently), so those are the races to watch.

Forecasts for governors aren’t as comprehensive, but FiveThirtyEight predicts we’ll get about 28 Republican (22 Democratic) governors, while PredictIt expects 31+ Republicans; I’ll split the difference at 30. Everyone agrees that Oregon is surprisingly competitive because of an independent drawing Democratic votes. The biggest difference I see is on New York, where PredictIt gives Republican challenger Lee Zeldin a real chance (26%) but FiveThirtyEight doesn’t (3%).

Overall forecast: moderate red wave, Republicans take the House and most governorships, probably the Senate too. But if they lose anything it is almost certainly the Senate.

These forecasts seem about right to me. Democrats are weighed down by an unpopular (-11) President and the highest inflation in 40 years. This would lead to a huge red wave, but Republicans have their own weaknesses; an unpopular former President lurking in the background, and the Supreme Court making a big unpopular change voters blame them for. This shrinks the red wave, but I don’t think its enough to eliminate it. The effect of Roe repeal is fading with time, and the unpopular Biden is more salient than the unpopular Trump; Biden is the one in office and is more prominent in media coverage. Facebook and recently-acquired Twitter may be doing Republicans a favor by keeping Trump banned through Election day. But if he drags Republicans down anywhere, it will be the Senate, where candidate quality (not just party affiliation) is crucial and his endorsements pushed some weak/weird/extreme candidates through primaries. We’ll also see this “extremist” Trump effect (abetted by cynical Democratic donations to extreme-right candidates) dragging down Republicans in some key governor’s races like Pennsylvania, where Democrats are now 90/10 favorites..

The Only Analysis of the Pennsylvania Senate Debate That You Need To Read

Last night the major party candidates for Senate in Pennsylvania had their first and only debate. I didn’t watch it, since I don’t live in Pennsylvania. But judging by my Twitter feed, a lot of people did watch it, including (bizarrely to me) lots of people who don’t live in Pennsylvania. And overnight, tons of articles were written analyzing the debate, saying who “won” the debate, and so on (“5 Things You Need to Know About the Pennsylvania Senate Debate” etc.).

But this blog post is the only thing you need to read about that debate. And these charts are really all you need to look at.

These two charts come from the prediction market website PredictIt. The charts show the “odds” (more on that below) that each candidate will win the Pennsylvania Senate race, over a 90-day time horizon (first chart) and the last 24 hours (second chart). What do we see? The Democratic candidate has been leading for the entire race up until a week ago, though with his odds falling gradually over the past month or two.

Notice though the big jump last night during the debate. The Republican candidate moved up from odds of about 57% to odds of about 63%, close to where it stands as I write (67%). Based on this result, it’s safe to say that the Republican candidate “won” the debate, though not so decisively that the election is now a foregone conclusion. You don’t need to wait for the polls, which have consistently showed the Democratic candidate in the lead (though with the gap closing in recent weeks) — though of course, these betting odds could change as new polling data is released.

But where do these odds come from?

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Should Virologists Regulate Themselves?

Last Friday a group of researchers mostly from Boston University posted a paper which revealed they had created a new chimeric coronavirus and used it to infect mice.

We generated chimeric recombinant SARS-CoV-2 encoding the S gene of Omicron in the backbone of an ancestral SARS-CoV-2 isolate and compared this virus with the naturally circulating Omicron variant. The Omicron S-bearing virus robustly escapes vaccine-induced humoral immunity, mainly due to mutations in the receptor-binding motif (RBM), yet unlike naturally occurring Omicron, efficiently replicates in cell lines and primary-like distal lung cells. In K18-hACE2 mice, while Omicron causes mild, non-fatal infection, the Omicron S-carrying virus inflicts severe disease with a mortality rate of 80%. 

Many people who heard about this expressed concern that the risk of creating more contagious and/or deadly versions of Covid that could escape from a lab outweigh any potential benefits of what we could learn from this research.

Several researchers have responded to these concerns with variants of “trust virologists to weigh the risks here, they know more than you.”

Don’t tell us virologists how to do our jobs; tell farmers, hunters, and veterinarians how to do theirs

Here’s the thing: the virologists do know the risks better than the public or potential regulators- but they also have different incentives. What I want to point out today is that virology isn’t special; this is true of just about every field. A nuclear engineer knows much more about what’s happening at their plant than voters do, or distant bureaucrats at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Should we leave it to the engineers on site to decide how much risk to take? Should federal regulators leave it to the financial experts at Bear Sterns and AIG to decide how much risk they can take?

To some extent I actually sympathize with these critiques; industry practitioners really do tend to have the best information, and voters often push regulatory agencies to be insanely risk-averse. With any profession this information problem is a reason to regulate less than you otherwise would, and/or pay to hire expert regulators.

But externalities are real- the practitioners who have the best information use it to promote their own interests, which tend to differ from the interests of the public. In finance this means moral hazard at best and fraud at worst (who are you to say Bernie Madoff is a fraud? You know more about finance than him?). In medicine it means doctors who get paid more for doing more; they gave the guy who invented lobotomies a Nobel Prize in Medicine. In research that involves creating new viruses, researchers get the private benefits of prestige publications for themselves, but the increased pandemic risk is shared with the whole world. In this case its not just outsiders who are concerned, some subject-matter experts are too (and not just “usual suspects” Alina Chan and Richard Ebright; see also Marc Lipsitch).

The main current check on research like this is supposed to be Institutional Review Boards. The chimeric Covid paper notes “All procedures were performed in a biosafety level 3 (BSL3) facility at the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories of the Boston University using biosafety protocols approved by the institutional biosafety committee (IBC)”. But there are many problems with this approach. The IRB is run by employees of the same institution as the researcher, the institution that also claims a disproportionate share of the benefits of the research.

IRBs are also incredibly opaque. The paper claims it was approved by Boston University’s institutional biosafety committee, but these committees don’t maintain public lists of approved projects; I e-mailed them Sunday to ask if they actually approved this project and they have yet to respond. There is also no public list of the members of these committees, although in BU’s case you can get a good idea of who they are by reading the meeting minutes. This chimeric Covid proposal appears to have been reviewed as the second proposal of their January 2022 meeting, reviewed by Robert Davey and Shannon Benjamin and approved by a 16-0 vote of the committee. During the January meeting the committee approved all 6 projects they considered unanimously, after hearing 6 reports of lab workers at BU being exposed to lab pathogens in the previous month, e.g.:

MD/PhD student reported experiencing low grade temperatures and other symptoms after he accidentally injured his thumb percutaneously on 12-6-21 while cleaning forceps that he had used to remove infected lungs from mice injected with NL63 virus

IRBs are supposed to protect research subjects from harm, but in practice largely serve to protect their institutions from lawsuits and PR disasters (part of why they’re often too strict). The fact that this did get institutional approval provides one silver lining here; if this chimeric Covid ever did escape and cause an outbreak, those infected by it could potentially sue for damages not only the individual researchers, but Boston University and its $3.4 billion endowment. Being able to internalize externalities in this way is one of many good reasons to be testing those infected with Covid to see what variant they have.

I think we should at least consider stronger national regulations against research like this, rather than leaving each decision to local institutional review boards (ask any researcher how much they trust IRBs). At the very least we should stop subsidizing it; NIH claims they don’t fund “gain of function” research like this, but the researchers who made a new version of Covid conclude their paper:

This work was supported by Boston University startup funds (to MS and FD), National Institutes of Health, NIAID grants R01 AI159945 (to SB and MS) and R37 AI087846 (to MUG), NIH SIG grants S10- OD026983 and SS10-OD030269 (to NAC)

The Quotable Walter Russell Mead

I listen to a lot of podcasts, but many are forgettable, and even the good ones can be hard to share, since they get their point across slowly and gradually. But on the latest Conversations with Tyler, I found foreign policy thinker Walter Russell Mead to be eminently quotable. Some highlights:

On Germany:

Kennan’s goal for Germany was to have a united, neutral, disarmed Germany at the heart of Europe. In some ways, [laughs] Kennan’s goal looks, maybe, closer than ever.

China’s development plan, much more than its Taiwan policy or its human rights, is a gun pointed at the head of German business

On America:

Over the last 40 years, there’s been an enormous increase in the number of PhD grads engaged in the formation of American foreign policy. There’s also been an extraordinary decline in the effectiveness of American foreign policy. We really ought to take that to heart.

The American academy is actually a terrible place for coming to understand how world politics works.

One of the teachers at Groton used to take aside some of the boys — it was an all-boys school at the time — and explain to them how their family fortune was made. He might say, “Well, George, we’ve been reading a lot about war profiteers in World War I. You need to know that your grandfather . . .”

I think neoconservatism reflected a sense of people who’ve never been wrong and never been beaten, at least in their own minds

On the Middle East:

In the Arab world, the Middle East, Islamism, and jihad — just call it jihadi ideology more broadly — is seen to have failed. Like socialism, like Arab nationalism, it’s one more in a long list of failed ideological movements. Not that there still aren’t terrorists, or for that matter, Arab socialists, but it’s not the same.

Nobody really thought, in 2008, as George W. Bush left office, that you could possibly mess up the Middle East worse than the Bush administration. But President Obama proved that that was wrong and that you could actually take the Middle East at the end of 2008 and make it almost infinitely worse, both for American interests and for the safety and happiness of the people in the region

On Ukraine:

The message, actually the totality of the message that we sent to Putin [through the intelligence we released] is, “You are going to win if you do this”.

I read Mead’s book Special Providence in college and enjoyed it then, but have’t kept up with his work since. The book’s title comes from another great quote, this time attributed to Otto von Bismarck:

God has a special providence for fools, drunks and the United States of America.

“The central values of civilization are in danger”

The Mont Pelerin Society was founded 75 years ago. The title of this post was the opening sentence of the Statement of Aims the new Society agreed upon. They had many concerns about what they considered “central values,” but primary among those concerns were the dangers related to market economies: “a decline of belief in private property and the competitive market” and “the growth of theories which question the desirability of the rule of law.”

How has the world done since 1947? It’s easy to point to the decline of communism and socialism, both in practice and as a dominant theory, as a victory for the goals of the Mont Pelerin Society. However, we might be concerned that in the non-communist world, economic freedom has declined even as communism has failed. Let’s dig a little deeper.

One source we can use is an extension of the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World index. The primary index only extends back to 1970, but recently Lawson and Murphy have constructed a version of the index which goes all the way back to 1950 for some countries. As far as I’m aware, they haven’t yet perfectly mapped the pre-1970 index with the primary index that extends to the present, but I’ll make a quick comparison using the available data. The 1950 data brings us very close to the date of the first MPS meeting.

Here’s a list of countries relevant to the discussion at MPS in 1947. The list includes countries where attendees came from, as well as other countries of interest to the discussion, such as China and Russia (I’m using the list from Caldwell’s recent edited transcripts of the 1947 meeting). Caveat: this isn’t a chain-linked index, so the 1950 and 2020 numbers are perfectly comparable. Also, the 2020 number only includes Areas 1-4 of the index, since that’s what the pre-1970 data contains.

The table above should give us some optimism about the state of market economies in the world from the perspective of 1947. Not only have China and Russia, clearly improved their economic freedom scores, but all of the Western market economies have as well. Again, exercise caution in interpreting these, since it’s not a chain-linked index, and it excludes one area of economic freedom (regulation, which surely has grown substantially since 1947). Despite those cautions, the picture in 2020 looks pretty good compared with 1950.

But what of other liberal institutions? While the MPS statement of aims doesn’t specifically mention democratic institutions, the threat to democracy seems to clearly be a concern in 1947 (“extensions of arbitrary power” and “freedom of thought and expression”).

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Administration’s Drastic Drawdown of Strategic Petroleum Reserve Makes Us Vulnerable to Actual Oil Supply Shock

Although fracking technology has enabled renewed oil production in the U.S., the West remains heavily dependent on oil imports, especially from the Middle East. Even in the U.S., the current refining capacity is not well-matched to the type of light oil produced by fracking, so we still import oil (of types that our refineries can handle), although we also export fracked oil. Since oil remains the basis of so much economic activity, and since many oil exporting countries are unstable or even hostile to the U.S and our allies, the U.S. in 1975 established a large Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) to store up crude oil. The storage is mainly in caverns in Texas and Louisiana, dissolved out of underground salt deposits. It was mainly filled in the Reagan/Bush administrations in the late 1970’s, and topped up under Bush II around 2003-2004.

The statutory purpose of this stockpile is to protect us and our allies against a “a significant reduction in supply which is of significant scope and duration,” per the Department of Energy. If such an event occurs, leading to high prices and associated economic impact, the President is authorized to release oil from the SPR. However,

In no case may the Reserve be drawn down…

 (A) in excess of an aggregate of 30,000,000 barrels with respect to each such shortage;

(B) for more than 60 days with respect to each such shortage;

Somehow various administrations and also Congress have circumvented these restrictions on draining the SPR, and over the years have sold off bits and pieces to raise money for government spending. However, the current administration has decimated the SPR, selling off a third of it (some 200 million barrels), mostly in the past six months:

Source: U.S. EIA

The administration projects this gusher to stop after November. Essentially all objective observers recognize this as primarily a political move, to reduce gasoline prices in order to curry favor with voters for the mid-term elections this November. It’s one thing to knock the price of gasoline down from $5.00/gallon back in the spring, when the world was panicked about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but to keep on selling into a moderated market is irresponsible. We haven’t had an actual shortfall in supply these past few months. Among other things, Russia keeps happily pumping and selling, out into the global grey market.

I won’t belabor the point here (stay tuned for more posts on this subject), but the world is structurally short of oil. With this administration having spent its first year demonizing oil and oil companies, the petroleum industry is understandably cautious about making expensive investments in future oil production. They know they will be stabbed in the back as soon as the current party in power no longer needs them.

By dumping this oil now, the administration is making the U.S. and the West more vulnerable later, if there is an actual global oil supply crisis (think: Iran vs. Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf…). Irritated by the lowish oil prices engendered by the SPR release, OPEC just announced production cuts which will drive prices right back up. They can cut production far longer than we can drain the SPR. If this all motivates further investment in low CO2 energy (including nuclear), that is perhaps a good thing. But between now, and attaining a carbon-free utopia in the future, we need to keep the crude flowing. Let us hope for the best here.

Energy analyst Robert Rapier writes:

Ultimately, drawing down the SPR was a political decision. Think about it. An administration that has frequently emphasized the importance of reducing carbon emissions is trying to increase oil supplies to bring down rising oil prices — which will in turn help keep demand (and carbon emissions) high.

But even though the Biden Administration wants to address rising carbon emissions, high gasoline prices cause incumbents to lose elections. So, they try to tame gasoline prices even though it contradicts one of their key objectives of reducing carbon emissions.

The SPR has now been depleted since President Biden took office from 640 million barrels to 450 million barrels…

President Biden’s gamble to deplete the SPR in order to fight high oil prices may not hurt him at all. Of course, if for some reason we had a true supply emergency and found ourselves needing that oil, it would be looked upon as a terrible decision.